Code of Silence Reigns Amid Scandals, Misbehavior at All-boys Catholic Schools
By Tresa Baldas
Detroit Free Press
January 2, 2020
|De La Salle Collegiate High School in Warren, Friday, Nov. 1, 2019. (Photo: Junfu Han, Detroit Free Press)|
When word got out that a football player at De La Salle High School was sexually hazed in the locker room, about a dozen athletes clammed up, including the victim, who police said doesn't want charges.
The same thing happened after a brawl broke out in December between students from Birmingham Brother Rice and Catholic Central: The case has gone nowhere because one victim doesn't want charges, police said, and no one else is talking.
Students at U-D Jesuit in Detroit were equally quiet in 2014 after a former teacher was charged with videotaping hockey players changing in a locker room. Students vented privately but refused to speak publicly.
This is the culture of silence that for years has reigned at metro Detroit's all-boys Catholic schools, where scandals involving misbehavior of all sorts put students, alumni and families on high alert as many are all too aware that reputation rules the day — and sports is king.
When scandals break, especially ones involving sexual assault, many students and alumni don't publicly talk about it. And the victims keep a super low profile if recent controversies are any indication.
As many alumni and students have said: If you want to survive in an all-boys setting, you have to keep quiet when something bad happens.
"They would rather carry it to the grave than to let someone else know about it," said one De La Salle football parent, referring to sexual hazing victims. "You don't want to be the one to upset the brotherhood."
This is the mindset that has prevailed during the De La Salle hazing scandal, which school officials and police have said involves multiple football players being held down, sexually taunted and prodded with broomsticks. A dozen players were instructed by their parents not to talk, police said. And none of the victims have spoken.
As another football parent put it, if the victims outed themselves, the repercussions would be brutal: "There's the kid that talked, the kid who ruined our season, who got the coach fired."
Two days after the hazing allegations surfaced at De La Salle, the school abruptly ended the football season, forfeited the playoffs, suspended three athletes and, most recently, fired the coach, Mike Giannone, who led the team to two state championships in his three years there. The school was also hit with a lawsuit by the three suspended students, who are claiming, among other things, racial discrimination. The accused are minorities at a mostly white school.
Additionally, Warren police have recommended assault and battery charges against the three suspended athletes, though the St. Clair County prosecutor has not yet made a charging decision.
No student wants to carry the brunt of that fallout, said a De La Salle parent, who believes there's a code of silence in the school's football program: His son was one of the intended hazing victims.
"From what I’ve seen, I would definitely say that there is a code of silence," the parent said. "They don't want to be that kid, the kid who breaks the code of silence. ... That player is going to have to walk the hallway and people are going to know."
The parent, who requested anonymity to protect his son from repercussions, also played football at an all-boys Catholic high school during his youth and said he witnessed minor hazing: wedgies, swirlies in the toilet and pushing around. But nothing like what's being alleged in the current scandal, he said.
"This crossed the line," he said. "There are still those parents out there who still chalk it up to hazing, 'nothing to see here,' " he said. "But there is something to see here."
Only the boys won't talk.
“I believe fear is the main driver of people going silent during controversial situations,” De La Salle Principal Nate Maus told the Free Press this week. “I wouldn’t be able to determine if this is a gender-specific issue, but I think many people regardless of gender, age or other demographics, fear repercussions, whether social or legal, when speaking out.“
Maus said the majority of students have cooperated with the school in the hazing investigation, and said the school has “done everything in our power to offer portals through which students can speak freely about this situation.”
“De La Salle has always operated on the basis of being as transparent as possible. In serious situations, like the hazing allegations, we have been proactive in communicating our process, decision making and next steps, “ Maus said.
It was De La Salle administrators who disclosed the hazing allegations when they abruptly ended the football team’s season in October and forfeited the playoffs.
“We made the determination before the current issue came to light to make a concerted effort to foster a more open and transparent conversations with students,” Maus said. “There are many instances nationally where you can cite the “culture of silence” issue, but at De La Salle, we have and will continue to do everything in our power to reduce it.”
'What happens at Georgetown Prep, stays at Georgetown Prep'
Among those who understand the code of silence at all-boys schools — and has acknowledged its existence — is U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who faced criticism during the nomination process for a comment he once made about his alma mater, Georgetown Prep, an elite, all-boys Catholic school in Maryland.
"We had a good saying that we've held firm to, to this day ... which is, 'What happens at Georgetown Prep, stays at Georgetown Prep,' " Kavanaugh said during a 2015 speech at Catholic University's Columbus School of Law. He drew a few laughs and added of himself and his friends:
"That's been a good thing for all of us, I think."
Kavanaugh's critics lambasted him for the comment during the confirmation process as he faced allegations that he sexually assaulted a girl when he was in high school. Kavanaugh has adamantly denied the accusation. And his supporters have said the Georgetown Prep comment was just a joke.
History suggests otherwise.
In 1990, seven years after Kavanaugh graduated high school, four Georgetown Prep students were expelled for allegedly participating in a hazing ritual called “butting,” in which a student is held down while another student places his naked buttocks close to the victim's face
A lawsuit followed. One of the accused claimed he and his classmates took the fall for a common practice that hundreds of kids either knew about or participated in, and that it went on for years. School officials said they had never heard about the butting. The lawsuit was dismissed.
Two decades later, just weeks before one of its alumni would be confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court, Georgetown Prep would publish a letter defending its reputation, and acknowledging problems exist.
"There is no denying that this is a challenging time for a lot of reasons," Georgetown Prep President James Van Dyke wrote in a 2018 letter to the school community. "It is not that our students are perfect; they are still learning. ... Our own efforts are not always perfect nor do we always get it right, mind you, but they are good — deeply good."
The letter continued: "It is a time for us to continue to evaluate our school culture ... to continue our ongoing work with the guys on developing a proper sense of self and a healthy understanding of masculinity, in contrast to many of the cultural models and caricatures that they see. And it is a time to talk with them honestly and even bluntly about what respect for others, especially respect for women and other marginalized people means in very practical terms — in actions and in words."
The letter also addressed the school's image.
"It's also been tough to see the caricature that we have been painted with by some: That we are somehow elitist, privileged, uncaring. ... That we are elite, we cannot deny. ... That we are privileged, we also cannot deny. ... But we are not entitled."
Pedophile teacher in hiding
In 2015, Father Richard James Kurtz, 70, a former chemistry teacher at University of Detroit Jesuit High School, was sentenced to 12 years in prison after pleading guilty to child pornography and sexually assaulting a former student. He was also accused of secretly videotaping U-D hockey players while they changed in the locker room.
|James Kurtz, a Catholic priest, was a chemistry teacher at U of D Jesuit. He is serving a 12-year prison sentence after pleading guilty in 2015 to child pornography and molesting a child. (Photo: Province of Society of Jesus)|
"Words can't express how much remorse I feel," Kurtz said at his sentencing hearing. "Some of my victims have names that are known to me. I am guilty of capturing images of them for my perverse pleasure. ... The damage I've done must be borne by them for time to come. I accept full responsibility for betraying them."
Through it all, however, several of his victims have remained quiet, including the boys he allegedly videotaped as they undressed in the locker room during the 1998-99 hockey season.
When news of the charges surfaced, several U-D alumni, including former hockey players, expressed outrage, frustration, and disbelief. But none would speak publicly. It was too controversial, many said, and they didn't want to speak ill of U-D and taint its reputation.
One alumnus initially agreed to talk but has since changed his mind, fearing repercussions.
It wasn't the first time Kurtz escaped public scathing from his pupils and their parents.
In 2001, Kurtz was dismissed from U-D when a 16-year-old boy accused him of molesting him during a trip to the Air Force Academy in Colorado. The family, though, opted not to pursue charges, so another decade would pass before Kurtz would be arrested, charged and convicted in that case.
Kurtz pleaded guilty to molesting the child and was placed on probation, ordered to live in confinement at a Missouri retreat for wayward priests. That's where he was living when priests discovered Kurtz's collection of child porn while packing his belongings in Clarkston and Chicago.
The FBI was notified. Charges followed. Kurtz is now behind bars. Parole is not an option.
U-D fired Kurtz in 2001 after learning of the molestation accusations and reported him to Child Protection Services.
"James Kurtz has had no affiliation with U-D Jesuit since that time," U-D Jesuit President Karl Kiser said in 2014. "The safety and well-being of our students is of primary importance to all of us at U-D Jesuit. We do not tolerate any form of abuse at the school, and we absolutely do not support any efforts to protect abusers."
U-D also says that it has "always fostered a culture of transparency and justice," and does not believe that a culture of silence exists within its community.
"The faculty, staff, and student leaders at U of D Jesuit promote an atmosphere of 'see something, say something.' This approach is promoted in athletics, academics, and student life," U-D said in a statement to the Free Press this week. "It is the goal of our school, and of a traditional Jesuit education, to help our young men develop personal integrity through their response to issues of social justice. One cannot be committed to the promotion of justice by being silent when controversies arise."
But that's what happened when the controversy struck close to home. When the U-D teacher was accused of sex crimes, the students went silent.
When a brawl broke out after a Birmingham Brother Rice and Detroit Catholic Central hockey game in Plymouth Township in December, alumni responded with disgust and anger, concerned about the fate of the Brother Rice boys.
Catholic Central had blown out Brother Rice 4-0 and a slugfest followed. Footage from the brawl was reposted on Twitter, and showed a group of students throwing punches, many wearing orange. Brother Rice's primary color is orange; the video does not show any school names.
Brother Rice alumni protested quickly, though never revealing themselves.
Rather, anonymous billboards appeared around metro Detroit in support of students involved in the fight.
One billboard, addressed to Brother Rice High School, read:
"Alumni is disgusted with expulsions. Let boys back in school" and included a phone number to reach the school.
"Justice for our brothers," read another billboard.
Birmingham Brother Rice saw the billboards as premature.
In a statement to WXYZ-TV (Channel 7), said, "No decision on discipline for involved students has been made. A process is under way but slowed by exam week. The process is not yet complete," Brother Rice President Tom Reidy said in a statement to WXYZ last month.
Catholic Central issued this statement:
"We are aware of the incident after a hockey game in Plymouth during which two of our students were attacked by a group of individuals who do not attend our school. We are grateful to God that no one was seriously injured, and out of respect for the privacy of our students we do not have any further comment at this time."
Brother Rice officials have declined comment on the incident.
The Catholic High School League had this to say:
"This unfortunate incident does not reflect the Catholic values upheld by both schools and the CHSL community-at-large. CHSL leadership would like to express its relief that no one was badly hurt. ... The schools agree that students found to have engaged in wrongdoing will be disciplined accordingly, up to and including expulsion."
Meanwhile, Plymouth Township Police say they are investigating the incident, but running into a problem: One of the victims doesn't want charges brought. And others won't talk.
Hazing is everywhere
Sexual hazing is not unique to Catholic schools, as court filings across the country show.
In Texas, four teen boys pleaded no-contest in October to allegations they held down teammates and sodomized them with flashlights, shampoo bottles, broomsticks, fingers and other objects as part of an initiation ritual. The hazing allegations involved mostly football players at La Vernia High School, which is facing a federal lawsuit alleging hazing has been part of the football team's culture for years, and that school officials have turned a blind eye to it.
In Ohio, 11 Cleveland-area high school football players were victims of hazing at a camp in June, including four who were sexually assaulted by teammates, court records show. Four students were charged in August for their alleged roles in the assaults.
In North Dakota, five high school boys were charged last year in a hazing incident that authorities say included sexually assaulting other students in the boys' locker room. According to an internal investigation by the school, parents had complained about a so-called “rape game,” whereby students would either finger-poke the buttocks of victims through their clothes or penetrate them with fingers while they restrained them.
In 2017, three sophomores from Fordson High School in Dearborn were charged with assault in connection with a hazing incident. Prosecutors said the trio assaulted a 13-year-old freshman boy in the school's locker room before a football practice. One of the suspects exposed himself to the victim, they said.
In all these instances, authorities have struggled to get kids to talk — an all-too-familiar phenomenon for those who investigate sex crimes.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 6 males have experienced sexual abuse or assault by the time they turn 18, though the number is likely higher because of underreporting.
U.S. Department of Justice data shows that an average of 12,000 men report being sexually assaulted annually, but says that if unreported assaults are included, the actual number is closer to 60,000.
That's tens of thousands of males who won't break their silence.
Officials at De La Salle fear this is what they are up against. Kids who won't talk because they're scared or embarrassed. And unless they talk, they said, they can't get to the bottom of the hazing allegations, and determine how many victims there were and how severe the harm.
Police said a dozen athletes were instructed by their parents not to talk. Another 59 football players have been interviewed, but appeared to be holding back, police said.
As Warren Police Commissioner Bill Dwyer said: "The students were very guarded. They didn't give us all the information."
Dwyer stressed: "We need their cooperation."
Contact Tresa Baldas: 313-223-4296 or firstname.lastname@example.org